A call to renew Clean Air Act

November 04, 1998|By Robert T. Stafford and Leon G. Billings

FIFTY years ago, a dense mixture of fog and smoke settled over Donora, Pa., a gritty steel mill town of 12,300 people situated on the Monongahela River, 28 miles south of Pittsburgh.

When rains and wind cleared away the smog five days later, 17 people had died. Four others who had become ill during the pollution siege died within two months. A government study later concluded that 5,910 persons -- nearly half the population -- had been made ill by the smog.

Writers described the Donora incident as the Hiroshima of air pollution -- a disaster that first brought smog to national attention.

It was Donora, and later but similar smog disasters in London and New York City, that prompted the late Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine and others in Congress to initiate hearings that culminated with the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970.

This critical public health protection law was enacted unanimously by Congress over opposition from special-interest polluters who did not want to clean up their tailpipes and smokestacks.

Next year, Congress is scheduled to begin a re-examination of the Clean Air Act. And already many of those same special interests are looking for the opportunity to weaken the law -- in effect, to forget the lessons of Donora.

They will cloak their true agenda with such euphemisms as XTC "regulatory reform," "cost benefit" and "sound science."

Recalling Donora

In this era of "spin control" and facile sound bites, we would do well to remember what happened in this small industrial town and why the legislation it spawned is so important to all of us.

During the last week of October 1948, the weather in Donora was raw, cloudy and dead calm. Two local factories spewed pollution into the air, which stiffened into a motionless clot of smoke.

At local doctors' offices, phones began ringing off the hook.

The complaints were virtually identical: stomach pains, severe headaches, nausea and vomiting, choking and difficulty breathing. One local doctor later recalled that residents "began dropping like flies."

The U.S. Public Health Service investigated the incident and concluded that dirty air could cause "serious acute disabling diseases."

A warning signal

The truth, however, is Donora was like the proverbial canary in the coal mine: A warning signal about a more insidious and much greater problem. We now know that air pollution -- at far lower levels than present at Donora -- is an important factor in the occurrence and worsening of an array of chronic respiratory diseases.

Armed with this ever-growing body of information, Muskie and his colleagues passed the Clean Air Act. By any objective measurement, the law has been a great success. Emissions of major pollutants have dropped significantly even though our gross domestic product has nearly doubled.

That improvement in air quality has directly translated into better health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported last year that the Clean Air Act has prevented more than 200,000 premature deaths, 850,000 asthma attacks and nearly 9 million cases of acute bronchitis.

Even so, it's not time to declare victory. The health of tens of millions of Americans remains at risk. At least 37 states had levels of air pollution above the national health standard this past summer. And, by some government calculations, at least 40,000 people will still die prematurely because of the effects of air pollution.

The cleanup challenge remains formidable. Hundreds of older electric power plants continue to emit high levels of pollution. Sport utility vehicles, minivans and pickup trucks pollute three to five times more than other automobiles. And gasoline generally remains poisoned by high levels of sulfur -- a contaminant that prevents automobile catalytic converters from working properly.

Although the Clean Air Act has always received bipartisan support, the lobbyists from the coal, oil, electric power and automobile industries now are trying to enlist bipartisan opposition.

Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican and the majority whip of the House of Representatives, introduced legislation in the last Congress that would repeal the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990.

Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, wants to give polluting industries more authority over clean air standards. So does Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Senate subcommittee on clean air.

If these members and their supporters prevail, we will have forgotten the lessons learned in such great pain 50 years ago at Donora.

Former Sen. Robert T. Stafford of Vermont was chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Maryland Del. Leon G. Billings was an environmental aide to the late Sen. Edmund S. Muskie from 1966 to 1978 and president of the nonprofit Clean Air Trust.

Pub Date: 11/04/98

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